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Cloquet police chief placed on leave

Notes From the Small Pond: Stearns County, Winter, 2008

Humans are hard-wired to acquiesce and agree and help and cooperate. It’s how we took down the mammoth. We’re also hard-wired to be possessive and territorial and violent. It’s how we took down each other. Human evolution has made both sides of our schizophrenic natures more keen, indeed.

When we see the car stuck in the ditch on a dark, winter, blowy night, we are instantaneously compelled to pull over and help. A nano-second later we reconsider, engage our “common sense” and logic and make a more considered determination.

Could be a trick.

They’ve got a cell phone, anyway.

I’m already late.

I’ll call 911 for them.

But the initial instinct is to help. People are good. Sometimes — a lot of the time — the good’s been knocked out. A lot of the time. Most of the time? People are good. The mixture of people and pain, fear, loneliness, often isn’t.  And the devil seduces our other side.

Stearns County, Winter, 1988

On the sunny side of a freshly plowed county road, a big, fat pickup truck with the previous owner’s “Reagan & Bush” bumper sticker sits, parked and running, on the side of the road. The man inside the cab weeps, convulsively. He’s 50 or so, with a hairy beard; the skin on his face is red from pain and wind and alcohol. The windshield wipers flap intermittently from being knocked on, accidentally, five minutes ago, when the man had collapsed onto his steering wheel after pulling over in a fit of grief so dammed-up-and-burst, so sudden, so violent and so debilitating that no power of will could obstruct it. On the radio, the guy from “The Cure” sings about his wife, her saying “I’ll run away with you,” and the man doesn’t know The Cure and doesn’t hear the song or care.

The deputy sheriff crawls his squad up behind, not knowing what the hell and taking a deep breath about the profession he’s chosen, the pros and cons calculating at warp speed like they do with every stop, the background soundtrack supporting his training behavior, which is practiced and professional and healthily fearful. He approaches with care and wraps his knuckles on the driver’s window. Snowflakes fall like down.

“Sir,” he says. “Everything OK?”

He notices the man is crying, not responding.

“Hey,” he says again, louder. “Everything OK in there? Open up, please, sir.”

The window cranks down but the man remains slumped over his steering wheel, his sobbing, abates, deep, heavy breaths and he sits upright at last.

“Sorry,” he says. “It’s a helluva day for me,” and with this, he collapses again onto the steering wheel, triggering a singular staccato blast from his horn. The deputy startles.

“Jesus!” he blurts, quasi-comically. “Scared the hell outa me — sorry.”

“Sorry.”

There’s a moment of silence between them.

“You OK, sir? What’s up with you?”

The man tilts his chin back, aimed at the sky. Tears stream down, past his beard-filled jaw, onto his ruddy neck, disappear into his shirt.

“You wanna talk about it?” the deputy says.

The man turns his head, for the first time facing the deputy who notices the man’s red, puffy eyes. Breath like vodka exhaling.

“Not really,” the man says and inhales again, his eyelids clamping, pinching out tears.

“OK,” the deputy says. “But you can’t stay parked out here like this. It’s dangerous, and not just to you.”

“I know,” the man says and shifts in his seat, uprighting himself further, allowing a different line of sight for the deputy who now sees a pistol lying on the passenger seat. The deputy flexes.

“What’s that about?” he asks, nodding toward the gun, as his own right hand drops to the butt of his own pistol. “Put your hands on the steering wheel for a minute please.”

The man does, rather plaintively, and then glances down at the gun.

“Sorry,” he says. “I’m not dangerous.”

“That may be,” says the deputy, “but that revolver is.”

And the man in the truck guffaws and nods and agrees, smiles a little, revealing brown, broken teeth.

“Can’t even kill myself without getting in trouble.”

And he laughs out loud in spite of himself.

The deputy doesn’t laugh, but helps the man out of the truck. He then walks around the truck, never removing his right hand from the butt of his service weapon. He secures the pistol from the passenger’s side, empties its ammo and circles back around to the man. They look at each other.

“Here’s your weapon,” the deputy says and stares long into the face of the man. He slowly places the empty gun into the man’s hands. They look at each other.

“Thanks,” the man says.

“You’re welcome,” the deputy answers.

“What about my bullets?”

“No. And, don’t kill yourself tonight. Get some help.”

The man’s eyes widen for an instant, and then he’s back to his maudlin self, emotionally one-dimensional. A mannequin. The man bends at the waist, then returns upright, stretches vigorously and climbs into his truck. “Of course not,” he says. “Those bullets were for you.”

And the man in the truck drives off.

And the deputy calculates pros and cons.

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